Alaska's monster railroad: bane or boon?

There's a big idea floating around up here in Alaska - and it could forever change the face and feel of America's last great frontier.

It's something people have been dreaming about for decades. Now it's rumbling toward reality.

The plan is to build a railroad from Fairbanks - through 850 miles of icy wilderness - down to the Lower 48.

Today just one highway connects Alaska to its southern siblings, so this $3-billion-or-more project would be a big new avenue for trade and tourism.

But more than just a new set of rails, it symbolizes the think-big, can-do spirit thriving in Alaska today.

This is the state that built an 800-mile oil pipeline. It's the state that considered building a massive aquaduct to transport water from melting glaciers to thirsty California.

Yet there's another spirit that runs strong here, too. It revels in the state's natural beauty - and isolation. Minnesota may have 10,000 lakes, but Alaska has 3 million. There are more caribou here than people.

Yes, it's environmentalism. But many people came to Alaska to escape congestion. They like being disconnected from the nation - and want to keep it that way.

It's these two attitudes that largely define the state -and that any big project will have to reconcile to become reality.

And the tension between them won't end with the Lower-48 rail link.

To connect or not to connect

There's a plan to carve out a 55-mile rail tunnel under the Bering Strait to Russia - at a cost of at least $15 billion. It's still a pipe dream, but with global trade growing, it's gaining momentum. Indeed, the tunnel would link much of the world by rail: Trains could run from New York to Beijing and Moscow and London.

But first things first. Last month, the state House of Representatives gave its unanimous consent to establish a right of way for the rail route down south.

Soon proponents will gather to plot the next steps.

"It's pretty revved up now," says Jeannette James, the state representative who's spearheading the idea. "We in the legislature are moving ahead. And there's lots of private money itching to do something."

She hopes construction will start within six years. Several things make that time frame seem realistic.

First, the US government is moving toward putting an antiballistic missile defense - or "star wars" -base near Fairbanks. A rail link would help in building the facility.

Second, many mining companies back the plan -and would use trains to get their products to market more efficiently.

Third, the Canadian Arctic Railway, a start-up company in British Columbia, has mapped out a route for the Canadian section. President David Broadbent says he already has several New York investors interested in funding the project.

Tourism taking off

Fourth, tourism is growing fast. The number of annual tourist visits to Alaska has doubled to more than 1 million in the past decade.

People come to see melting glaciers or bald eagles, which, in some places up here, seem as common as sparrows.

Take the waterfront town of Valdez, home of one of the nation's busiest oil-loading ports. Like the rest of Alaska, its dependence on oil is fading. Revenues from the port aren't as high as in the past.

But tourism is speeding ahead. Visitors come to fish for halibut and salmon. Or they take sea kayaks out to Prince William Sound, their paddles plying the waters once sullied by the Exxon Valdez's spilled black goo. It's a sign of the times for this town. Oil is still king, but tourism is challenging.

Unlike oil, "tourism is a renewable resource," says Joe Leahy, a kayak guide in Valdez. "The more tourists the better."

Compared with a road ...

Yet supporters of the rail-link plan are mindful of getting skeptics on board. One selling point is that with a railway - as opposed to a road - access is "controlled," meaning not just anyone with a car can jump on.

"The fewer roads we build, the better off we are," says Ms. James. Some environmentalists have given their backing to the plan.

But other Alaskans will be harder to convince. They say more links to the Lower 48 will further compromise Alaska's independence.

"We've already got highways and barges and boats and airplanes" - and too many tourists in their Winnebagos, says Paul Converse, a longtime resident.

There's an old native word, still in use today, that means "newcomer." Cheechakos is what Alaskans call the tourists - when they're being polite.

Yet, this struggle between old and new, between connection and isolation, is an age-old one in this vast, enticing wilderness. And with the idea of a rail link gaining steam, Alaskans have another chance to strike a balance between them.

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